RETHINKING MARXISM Volume 9, Number 1 (Spring, 1996/7)
In this issue, J. K. Gibson-Graham begins by "querying" the discourse of globalization: the familiar narrative in which the internationalization of capital penetrates and ultimately conquers every available space where economic activity is conducted. Gibson-Graham’s novel rethinking of the discourse of globalization proceeds by bringing the story of capitalism’s unlimited and unstoppable power of invasion into a productive comparison with "rape scripts," in which women’s bodies are thought to be potentially and necessarily violated by the "fact" of men’s inescapable violence. Using poststructuralist feminist reconsiderations of discourses of rape and how they may help to produce women as potential victims (by neglecting partly the moments of resistance and subversion of the essential "fact" of the dominance of male violence), Gibson-Graham shows that an analogous move to naturalize the inexorable subordination of all noncapitalist spheres of socioeconomic life to an irresistible capitalism is an unquestioned assumption in much of the globalization literature.
Gibson-Graham envisions a different globalization discourse—one in which capitalism is not only "hard," penetrating, and dominant but also is "soft," capable of being penetrated and even subordinated, largely as a result of the globalization process in which noncapitalist forms of production and the proliferation of economic differences are likely consequences of transnational flows of capital. From international labor activism to the creation of newly self-employed workers, Gibson-Graham gives numerous examples of how global capital is resisted by economic subjects and forms of economic practice that are not inscribed in the body of capital, and of how capital (for example, finance capital) itself is much more incoherent and fluid than that which most globalization discourses present. In this last respect, Gibson-Graham seeks to "queer" global economic discourse by emphasizing that, not unlike gender and sexuality, no fixed and transcendent identity should be attributed to capitalism. Global capital gives rise to a variety of "infections" that, in addition to spreading capitalism, produce "the renewed viability of noncapitalist globalization." Gibson-Graham warns us that "if we create a hegemonic globalization script with the multinational corporation, the financial sector, the market, and commodification all set up in relations of mutual reinforcement, and we then proclaim this formation as a 'reality,' we invite particular outcomes." In contrast, Gibson-Graham urges us to query globalization and to queer the body of capitalism so as to "open up the space for many alternative scripts" with an expanded cast of characters who may "participate in the realization of different outcomes."
Serap Kayatekin tells us that the main traditions in the social and economic analysis of sharecropping assume the need either to subject this agrarian institution to the evaluative criterion of "efficiency" (the primary norm of neoclassical economics) or to theorize sharecropping as a mostly transitional economic form, something "other" than capitalism but precariously perched on the dustbin of history because of capitalism’s dynamic of subjugation. These approaches usually presume stable and fixed meanings for the key terms in the sharecropping arrangement: cropper, landowner, and rent. Developing a detailed class taxonomy, Kayatekin begins the process of deconstructing the concept of sharecropping by showing us the multitude of class processes and positions that have been encompassed by the term. Drawing on cross-cultural and transhistorical examples (from the métayage system in medieval France to the postbellum U.S. South and sharecropping in contemporary Malaysia and the Sudan), Kayatekin subjects each site where sharecropping exists to class analysis. She unearths along the way the alternative possibilities that sharecropping can be constituted primarily by feudal, self-exploitative, and capitalist class processes or by some combination of all three. An added and crucial feature of her work is to diversify the concept of "rent," at least as it applies to sharecropping, with each new meaning suggesting different class origins and components. Kayatekin shows that the termination of the class composition of any type of sharecropping is decisively dependent upon the cultural, political, and legal forms that position the cropper and the landowner in relation to the ownership/possession of land and other means of production, to appropriate rights over the crop, and much else. Kayatekin considers in passing the idea that the "persistence" of sharecropping throughout history and across geographical boundaries is not surprising; its various and different forms suggest that the conditions for its existence also are many and can appear both within and outside the supposed extension of the capitalist world market. Kayatekin’s antiessentialist rendering of sharecropping allows for a keen reconceptualization of this rural fixture, one that promotes conjunctural investigations rather than general proclamations about sharecropping’s essential historical tendencies.
With the "end of history" at hand, can it be said that the Enlightenment project of establishing the universality of liberal democratic ideals has neared completion? And if not, what then is the status of those ideals in movements and rhetorics of protest, especially for those who regard late capitalism as a nightmare of rampant commodification and total administration rather than heaven on earth? Deborah Cook considers these questions in her article, using the late writings of Theodor Adorno as her means of investigation. Cook begins with the provocative thesis that the late Adorno was more willing than he had been earlier in his career to base an "ideology critique" of late capitalism on liberal democratic ideals. Cook emphasizes that in works after the Dialectics of Enlightenment (written with Max Horkheimer), Adorno went on to defend "the critical power of liberal ideology’s normative ideals against both positivism and the view of ideology as false consciousness." In so doing, according to Cook, Adorno projected the idea that liberal norms (such as freedom, autonomy, and spontaneity) could be crucial to drive a wedge between the "real" forms of their existence in a commodified and alienated society and their unliberated "truth." Thus, in Adorno’s view, liberal ideals continue to remind us of the gap between the lived reality of abstract equality that is reduced to the logic of commodity exchange and domination and the possibility of a freedom not reducible to this reality. In Cook’s reading, Adorno’s abhorrence for the "culture industry" stemmed mostly from his view that it duplicated and justified the status quo of the identity of ideology with reality and did not, therefore, seize the utopian potential in the liberal ideals culture claimed to "represent." Cook also shows, however, that Adorno’s belief in the "utopian" moment of liberal ideals was tempered to a far greater degree than in today’s left advocates of radical democracy and rights, such as Bowles and Gintis or Laclau and Mouffe. In Cook’s reconstruction, Adorno never lost his insight that "since the vast majority of individuals in the West have fallen under the ’spell' of positivist modes of thought and behavior, liberal ideology has become increasingly outmoded." For Cook, Adorno "reminds us of the impact that Enlightenment’s liberal democratic ideals had had—and might yet have—on consciousness and reality, while demonstrating how much critical force they have already lost."
"Trotsky in the Park" marks Amitava Kumar’s return to the pages of RM. It is a poem about poems, a work about work. It unfolds in the cityscape that is New York, where black women breathe verses about death and pregnancies; where Puerto Rican kids play ball in mean and not-so-mean streets; where a Pakistani student reads Trotsky in the park, thinking of the clash of cultures that envelops him, but looking for clues nonetheless in the red "classics"; where city parks are the battlegrounds of another cultural standoff—the plight of the homeless. Kumar’s ode to poetry via this rainbow urbanity releases all the vitality, beauty, and anger at the historic moment that has pushed those from "poor nations protecting their land and their language" haltingly but unyieldingly into the limelight, and that has made those who are "class negative, color negative" ineffably visible and voluble. We hear through Kumar as though we had forgotten that poetry is at once the sound of sweet revenge and the sound of its failings, the sound of angry desire and the sound of its refusal, and always the sound. If Kumar entices us with the poetry of the spoken word (as we read it on the page), he is adept at making us confound our senses, as readings, writings, and listenings are mingled together in the "noise" of the city. At the poem’s end (how can this poem end, one wonders), Kumar presents a young factory worker, a woman whose immigrant status has her working overtime, standing late at night deep in the bowels of New York’s subway system. As she gazes at her hands—her own means of production, she is surrounded by silence. Kumar tells us that "in that silence is born the silence that this poem makes." If this is silence, then silence is golden.
It may well be that in some postmodern Marxist circles, left arguments for justice and equality have been elided during the past two decades by a pervasive antihumanism and by the belief that establishing the ethical bases for socialism is inextricably linked with liberal concepts of self, society, and social action. Yet, during these same decades, there has been a raging debate among some left social thinkers for whom providing compelling ethical arguments for socialist egalitarianism and the end of capitalist exploitation has remained a basic goal. Perhaps leading these efforts has been G. A. Cohen, whose twenty year attempts to wed a bedrock commitment to personal freedom with some form of egalitarianism are documented here by Paul Kamolnick.
Kamolnick first revisits Cohen’s initial work in the 1970s and early 1980s, in which Cohen was intent on showing how a preference for any social scheme founded on "self-ownership" and the conduct of a "free individual life plan" was diametrically opposed to inegalitarian social conditions, whether voluntarily arrived at or not. Kamolnick shows that during this earlier phase, Cohen was grappling with the profound reverberations in ethical discourse set off by Robert Nozick’s defense of a mostly right-wing liberalism, for which private property and inequality were justified as necessary outcomes of the free expression of liberty. Kamolnick reviews Cohen’s subsequent moves in the 1970s and 1980s to try to find the lacunae in Nozick’s reading of John Locke’s theory of property and labor value, then his abandonment of that pursuit in favor of discovering a moral justification for "joint ownership" as a condition for freedom. Kamolnick provides an update on Cohen’s most recent work in which he still embraces personal liberty and, with it, personal choice, but is critical of antiegalitarian assumptions that "choice" itself is sufficient to imply unequal "rewards" and, more important, that the "preferences" and "capacities" upon which choice is presumed to be based are "chosen" at all. Kamolnick sees Cohen’s latest endeavors as having practical significance since some of his most recent arguments about marrying libertarian and egalitarian norms have been made within the political debates of the British Labour party, whose members have had urgent discussions over labor’s just share in the context of the acceptance of the market mechanism. Skeptical that the market can be the means to achieve egalitarian distributive goals, though convinced that the market is an effective mechanism in realizing individual life choices through the unplanned allocation of social labor, Cohen has retained his status in these debates as a careful, independent, and indispensable ethical theorist of a better social(ist) order. As Kamolnick concludes, "if Cohen is right about the fact that socialist normative theory is premised in a vision of human self-realization that mandates both egalitarian and libertarian moments, the continuing need to theorize the possibility of that project seems as pressing as ever."
Thomas Kamber reminds us that Marx was a devotee of reading Aeschylus. Not surprisingly, then, Marx can be read as a theorist of historical tragedy as well as a tragic figure, a hero whose suffering is reflected in the self-repudiations and vindications that can be traced in the unfolding of his own work. Kamber takes this Marx, tragic flaw and all, and shows that it is through the trope of tragedy that we can understand how Marx could produce such "harsh, dystopic views of human relations under capitalism" and yet never purge himself of an unabiding "utopianism." Kamber notes that much of Marx’s continual self-cleansing and implied admissions of guilt, which are accompanied by constant suffering, take the objectified form of his trenchant, merciless critiques of the ideas of others who held views that an earlier Marx for the most part had already abandoned. Thus, Kamber shows that Marx, in turn, embraced and rejected "practical need" as it characterized his view of "the Jew," philosophy as the form of discovery of species-being and human essence, and history as the "real" engine of social transformation. In Kamber’s story Marx finally becomes the theorist of the political conjuncture, advocating an activism based on a tactical envisioning of the future. Marx’s acerbic critiques of those who held onto views associated with his own earlier contributions can be read as self-critiques and, more to the point, as self-inflicted punishments for his own tragic flaws of sentimentality, bourgeois humanism, ahistorical naturalism, and much else. As Kamber argues, "all his life Marx incorporated deeply utopian impulses into his theory, yet attacked the same ideas (when held by others) as sentimental, seeking phantom images of harmony, or simply bourgeois." In Kamber’s view, Marx’s continuing commitment to communism was based on understanding "the suffering of the proletariat as a necessary step to a new way of thinking," an understanding that inscribed Marx and his historical subject as tragic and heroic, seeking and realizing redemption through confrontation and protracted struggle with his own tragic flaws.
Images photographic and electronic suffuse the environment, while every object and subject becomes "fair game" for portrayal in these media. Scott Townsend’s photoessay comments on the situation where, increasingly, "we are asked to decide the fate of electronic and photographic simulacra, without understanding the gap between our construction and the fate of those placed outside of our electronically enlarged language." Townsend’s images, which blur the distinctions between camera and computer, between representation and construction, appear murky in their own right, coming out of the background just long enough to put into play. Are the fragments of hands, globes, sentences, geometries all fair game? Are these imaginings part of the same game, for that matter? What ends do they serve? Knowledge? Dissemination? Pleasure? Control? Townsend shows just enough of these images to suggest a portrait, but one that is open to contestation, a matter of politics. The coming to clarity, the moment of recognition that Townsend ultimately effects, still leaves us with the problem of having to decide on the form of our intervention in a world clearly permeated by machinic/electronic means of representation/production. Will we face the game that is our electronic environment with fairness in tow, or have we, too, by now become fair game?
The Remarx section opens with Kalyan Sanyal’s biting critique of radical democratic discourse. Sanyal’s claim is that the post-Marxist work of Laclau and Mouffe, Bowles and Gintis, and others has granted a discursive and political privilege to struggles over "rights" and power in the First World. This privilege is possible only if one ignores the uneven, global politics of power and economic development that position postcolonial subjects as victims of environmental degradation, worsening work conditions, and so forth. Sanyal argues that the ability of social movements in the West to wrangle increases in rights via struggles for radical democracy, ecofriendly production, or a greater say in the workplace is built on the ability of Western capital to make the Third World the main location of "smokestack industries" and authoritarian regimes that are increasingly hostile to unions and demands for improved labor conditions and political rights. Sanyal is pessimistic about a new internationalism emerging from radical democracy since not only does it generally hide or ignore the continuing problems that stem from class exploitation, but it also nationalizes the struggle for rights through a discourse of "difference." In this discourse, the "others" within Western nations are substituted for distant others who, in turn, are subordinated to the demands of global capital by present unevennesses in the international pattern of trade and production. In this way the supposed transcendence of the older (and "economistic") notion of imperialism by the post-Marxist language of the "articulation" of radical democratic forces bespeaks an "occlusion" of the Third World and the plight of its people in the face of its integration "into one single global economic and political order." While Third World activists and intellectuals, then, may see something of merit in the rejection of modernist narratives and programs, Sanyal believes that the prospect for a postmodern, radical democratic discourse that theorizes implicitly conditions in the Third World—including their discursive and material reproduction through post-Marxism—will be frustrated by the inability to address "global unevenness and the politics of power associated with it."
Calling discourses of "safe sex" the new secular scientistic religion of the Left," David Mertz concludes this issue with his contention that AIDS has been the premise upon which progressives have largely capitulated their prior support for sexual revolution. Mertz wishes to "out" the reactionary sexual moralism that he believes has enrobed itself in the medico-scientific authority of warnings about the danger to the general population of unsafe sexual practices. But Mertz’s disapproval is directed mostly at the Left which should know better, but which seems to have warmed to the task of serving as moral educator and advisor to "innocents" such as young, heterosexual undergraduate students. Mertz detects in the moral/scientific languages of safe sex a determination to regulate sexual activity, and he believes the Left has performed that function to perfection by suggesting that to remain silent on unsafe sex is to abdicate moral responsibility and to be complicit in AIDS-related deaths. While Mertz does not believe that the known facts about AIDS suggest either the imminent, epidemic spread of the disease to non-drug-using heterosexuals or the likelihood that mortality rates will increase dramatically in the future, his argument depends less on the epidemiology of AIDS than on his view that the Left has succumbed to the demand that sexuality be rethought in terms of "responsibility, danger, and obligation" rather than "liberation, freedom, and resistance." Mertz notes the uncanny similarity between the discourses that attended the spread of syphilis in the early parts of this century and those that currently constitute the reactions to AIDS. In each case, Mertz believes, the Left played a most dismaying role, taking the lead in some instances by calling for moral restraint and the "forfeit of freedoms." Mertz ends by reflecting critically on the change in left moral discourse that has been wrought by the history of venereal diseases, as "the language of science, remaining on the surface value-neutral, became the framework for conceptualizing moral necessity."
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